Wilhelmina Smith, cellist and founder of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, was player, singer and composer in a performance of Raven Chacon’s “Taago Dez’ a” (“Three Points”), created for a singing cellist and an example of Native American music played at Tuesday’s concert at Darrows Barn. She did them all well.

Chacon, born in 1977, is a Navajo composer of both traditional and electronic music, and his piece for a singing cellist consists of three movements: 1) like a chased animal, 2) shy, for a singer, and 3) quiet but proud (like singing at night).

The first is composed of graphic instructions, which the player interprets. In the second the cellist must learn the music by ear (there is no printed score). The third is in classical notation.

All are haunting evocations, using Navajo syllables, and eerie cello sounds reminiscent of electronic music.

The program opened with more traditional Native American music, of the Wabenaki tribes, by the noted Burnurwurbskek Singers, accompanied by a large moose-skin drum. The moods ranged from sad to warlike to amorous — all in traditional form without a single pentatonic scale that I could hear.

Strangely enough, the Janacek Violin Sonata (1921) sounds heavily influenced by Native American music, even though there is no hint of such in the composer’s writings. It may have something to do with Janacek’s method of transcribing speech patterns into music, its rhythmic complexity and its use of modal scales, without key signatures.

Violinist Jonathan Crow and pianist Pedja Muzijevic gave it an exciting and soulful reading, in which the violin and piano sometimes seemed (deliberately) at odds, melody squelched by percussion — which seems to have been Janacek’s conception of the world after World War I.

Smith is not only adept at new music, but an outstanding interpreter of the classics, as shown by her flawless yet sensitive rendering of the cello part in the slow movement of Dvorak’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, Opus 87.

The quartet as a whole enjoyed a brilliant and crowd-pleasing reading by Smith, Crow, violin, Muzijevic, piano and Misha Amory, viola.

It was written before Dvorak’s sojourn in America, and free of Native American influence, but it makes the most direct use of Czech folk music of any of his works, especially the waltz of the third movement.

The quartet received a well-deserved standing ovation, and it was obvious that the players enjoyed it too. The final program of the series will be on Saturday. 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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